Speaking “Out,” But Not Heard?

There has been an huge uptick in the number of articles discussing gay athletes in the past few years: Robbie Rogers announced his retirement and came out simultaneously, before returning to play with the LA Galaxy and effectively becoming the first openly gay player in the MLS, and Tom Daley, the bisexual British diver, Jason Collins came out between NBA seasons, while a free agent, and after a short delay was signed on a short-term contract to with the Nets in Brooklyn, where he became the first NBA player (and the first of any athlete in the “Big 4” American sports) to step on the court after coming out, instead of the other way around. 

With the public announcements made by each of these men, every article seemed to dedicate significant column space to a question asked by every sports pundit and blogger in the U.S.: when will the NFL have an openly gay player? Professional football, a bastion of reinforcing ideals of masculinity, exploded simply over reported “rumors” that a player might come out. But the question seems to have been answered by Michael Sam, a 2014 Mizzou grad and an SEC standout taking part in the upcoming draft. Though there is speculation that his coming out badly damaged his draft “stock,” with a tired excuse: the locker room.

“There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” the assistant coach said. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality. It shouldn’t be, but it will be.”       –An unnamed NFL Assistant Coach.

This “fear” is so pervasive that Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist, attempted to “legislate”  separate locker rooms for any openly gay football players.  (Mainly a publicity stunt, but still horrifying). 

Sam’s response, from a February 25 tweet, was concise, and important: “Jack Burkman is going to need a Delorian, not some bogus bill, if he wants to prevent gay athletes from being in the locker room.” He’s right— there have been at least seven “out” gay men who played professional football. “Out” has to remain in quotes for that number, though, because some were forced out: Kwame Harris, when his fight an ex-boyfriend ended in assault charges, and Jerry Smith, only publicly known as gay after his death. In the same vein as Sam’s tweet, Megan Rapinoe wrote a cheekily-titled op-ed in The Advocate, “Your Team Can’t Handle a Gay Player? Then Your Team Sucks.” She raises another important point: in professional athletics, players should be professional enough to respect their teammates (and opponents), regardless of their sexuality. And former NFL player Troy Vincent also said that he played with “at least 6” men who might not have made a media-blitz open announcement, but were openly gay in the very territory disputed by Burkman and his cohorts: the locker room. Furthermore, despite statements like that of the assistant coach who said other guys “couldn’t deal with it,” Vincent says there were “no problem[s]. From my days in Miami until I ended in Washington, they were just my teammates.”

Apart from professionalism, the space that allows gay or bisexual athletes to come out is created by a sense of safety. It is incredible that these men: Michael, Robbie, Tom, & co. are feeling safe enough to come out. Things are changing, but slowly. I think the most lasting and important level of intervention is to change attitudes at youth levels, for players and especially for coaches. In “Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports,” Michael Messner addresses the rampant homophobia in boys’ and men’s athletics, emphasizing that from a young age, sports are one of the myriad ways young boys are socialized to do anything to avoid being called “a p*ssy” or “a f*g.” These small words have a huge impact: coaches need to be held responsible for stopping homophobic and misogynistic language on the field and in the locker room, both from the mouths of their players and their selves.

I think that the discussion surrounding gay, bisexual, and queer athletes is absolutely essential: progress is being made, and the media attention is (mostly) positive. But what is conspicuously missing from this attention is any discussion of lesbian and bisexual female athletes. This silence itself has been noted in articles like:

But they are largely ignored, or mentioned only in passing. Why is this? Much of it hangs on the idea that “nobody cares,” based on the smaller audience for women’s sports in general, or that stereotypes of both female athletes and of lesbians lead to assumptions that there is great overlap between the two.

Brittney Griner made a public announcement that she was gay just before the WNBA draft last year, and many major news outlets covered the topic, but it was not a revelation nor a prolonged discussion: a New York Times article captured this reception in just a headline: “Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs.” Megan Rapinoe, one of the most recognizable faces on the current US women’s soccer team came out loudly as well just before the 2012 Olympics, where her team went on to win the gold. It was big news for readers of Out Magazine, which published her official interview, and for fans of the team, but reception elsewhere was lukewarm: Deadspin’s response was titled ” ‘I’m Gay’ Says Megan Rapinoe. “That’s Nice,” Says Everyone. 

The “nobody cares” attitude doesn’t just come from the media: Abby Wambach, a star of the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) was considered the biggest “open secret” in women’s soccer, and known to be dating teammate Sarah Huffman for years. When the two married in 2013, the media took it as an official “coming out,” though Wambach herself shrugged it off: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am the the decisions I made.” It is progress that Wambach felt this way, and I definitely understand not wanting to make a splash with some sort of public, official announcement, but it’s also important to recognize the openness of Wambach and Huffman’s wedding on the modern athlete’s largest platform: social media. The couple might not have shared details with the media, but they did with their friends and thousands of fans, which is still important and was well-received by followers. 

In her official coming-out interview, Megan Rapinoe also addressed the way that the lack of attention paid to women’s sports can be freeing: “In women’s sports, you don’t really have to hide your whole life being gay. Whether you’re out or not, you can live very openly. Before I came out in 2012, I didn’t necessarily feel like I had to hide all of the time,” because while female athletes can be recognizable celebrities, they’re generally not superstars with the same frequency that the most skilled male athletes are. With the spotlight stronger on male athletes, and their heterosexuality so bound to ideas of prowess and power, the need to hide is much more overwhelming. The second half of Rapinoe’s sentence is just as important, though: “but when you are in the media — even to a small extent — and you’re not out, you do have to hide part of yourself.” She also called it “a weight off [her] shoulders” to come out, and that she felt her playing had also improved as a result.

Though media pressure to remain closeted is much lower for female non-straight athletes, that doesn’t mean it’s easy:  You Can Play, an advocacy group for LGBT athletes, has said it’s harder to find straight female athletes to speak out in support for them than to find straight male athletes. “because they’ve spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they’re a lesbian.” Stereotypes and fear hurt female athletes, too. And they’re entirely too pervasive: in their coverage of Rapinoe’s coming out, Deadspin said “we’re no longer shocked when our muscular, short-haired female athletes announce they’re gay.” I mean, really? In this decade, we’re still using hair length as a gauge for sexuality? What a tired stereotype.

On the professional level, Brittney Griner was not predicted to lose any draft advantage for coming out beforehand, like Michael Sam. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t pressured into the closet: though Griner had been open with her friends and family about her sexuality since high school, and even mentioned it to her coach at Baylor before committing to the school, she was told to keep quiet. According to this article, her coach said it would “hurt recruiting” for the Christian college if the public knew she was gay.

“It was a recruiting thing,” Griner said during an interview with ESPN The Magazine and espnW. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

The tension created by this rule had an effect on Griner, who said she became increasingly unhappy with it over time, and despite a successful four years as a Baylor athlete, she told  USA Today that she doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for that college, because while she’s been ‘accepted’ as a pro player, it “still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.” 

So clearly, it’s not true that “nobody cares,” because female athletes are presented with several reasons to stay closeted, and each queer woman who defies those pressures is doing something not only for herself, but for all queer people and all athletes. They have the ability to define what it means to be a female athlete, and what it means to be a bisexual or lesbian woman in the public eye. This impact goes beyond the players’ own lives: those who defy stereotypes (or fulfill them and ask to be seen as complete and valid people as well), have one less thing to stress about when they are able to be open, and they can be role models.

Gay fans clearly care too: Lori Lindsey, another teammate of Rapinoe and Wambach, gave her “official coming out interview” not to a sports magazine or blog, nor to a general “Gay News/LGBT Rights” outlet like The Advocate or Out, but to Autostraddle, a news & culture website for queer women.

As I said, the most important level for change is with youth teams: that means changing “locker room culture” from the beginning and also having gay athletes as positive role models. I think for every young person, especially gay, lesbian, or bisexual kids, it is inherently unfair to say that “nobody cares” about female athletes coming out. Megan Rapinoe’s Influence Goes Way Beyond Soccer, according to American Soccer Now: she “is transcending sport.” I’d have to agree wholeheartedly, and say that the same goes for all athletes that come out. What it comes down to is belonging- when athletes can come out and still be the same part of their team, and part of their sport: without retiring, without losing endorsements, then the world can see that they truly belong. Belonging is at the core of so much of sports culture, as underlined in Andrews’ piece on visible participation in the homogenous middle-class as filtered through the lens of participation in sports. This is how so many people think of themselves: though their participation in the sports world, on the field and on the couch. When athletes come out, care, fans care, queer people of every age and variety care, young people care. Just as the increasing ease of coming out in general will help things for athletes, I think that having athletes who are out, proud, and respected by their teammates and by the media, is progress, and something to be both celebrated and encouraged.

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